Stony Brook Matters

My Unlived Life with Philip Roth

From 1962 to 1966 I was an undergraduate English major at the brand new Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York. I had wanted to live on a college campus and this was the only “away” school my parents would allow me to attend, since it was a mere 30 minutes from the family home on Long Island.

Judy Stony Brook Memories
Judith Landsman ’66

The school and campus were not what I have since come to appreciate as a university; it was essentially a large construction site for my four years there. My freshman year, there were two completed structures: a dorm (one wing for boys, one for girls, cafeteria between) and a classroom building, both connected by a partially paved path that became a mud hole after it rained.

Course offerings were limited too, especially for us liberal arts majors, math and science being the specialties there. However, there was one big advantage. Since the school was located about an hour east of Manhattan and easily accessible by train, we had some wonderful professors.

I took every class offered by Alfred Kazin, the highly-respected literary critic. We had art installations constructed by Allan Kaprow, an experimental artist. And once a week, for one semester of my sophomore year, there was a creative writing class taught by Philip Roth.

Philip Roth was in his early thirties, tall, handsome, witty, urbane, and already a literary rock star. He had recently won the National Book Award for Fiction for his first book, Goodbye Columbus, had just published his second, Letting Go and there was a lot of buzz about him. Why he decided to teach writing at Stony Brook, I couldn’t imagine. But, for the budding young writers and intellectuals who took his class, it was a gift.

The class was on Wednesday afternoons. Tuesday nights in the girls’ dorm, there was a small flurry of activity. Hair was washed and curled, legs shaved, nails polished, and clothes ironed, all in anticipation of Mr. Roth’s arrival.

In class, we all adopted a particular attitude to try to catch the eye of our young professor of desire. One girl, slightly older and much worldlier than the rest of us (she had previously worked as a Playboy bunny in Chicago), went straight for the sexy: short skirts, tight sweaters, visible cleavage in the front row.

Some tried out the early beatnik look: black tights and turtlenecks, heavy lids and as much world-weariness as young suburbanites could muster.  They sat in the back.

And me? I did the eager young English major thing: white blouse, pressed pleated skirt and nylons, glasses and pencils at the ready. I sat smack in the center of the room, visibly entranced by every word that he spoke. I knew I couldn’t compete with the bunny and the beatniks in style, but I could write my heart out and Mr. Roth would read my stories and know my sensitivity, my humor, my passion. In my fantasy, our eyes would lock, he would see into my soul and recognize me as his true soul mate.

As far as I know, none of us ever gained any special attention from our teacher. I certainly never received an invitation to meet him in his office after class, or a note inviting me to dinner at some little New York bistro.

Next semester, he was no longer teaching and I transferred all my fantasies to my new French professor who also carried the aura of Manhattan with him.

In the course of time, I graduated, got a job, moved, went to grad school, married, had a child, divorced, worked some more, remarried. I followed Philip Roth’s career through newspapers and magazines and I read many, although not all, of his books. I often thought that I might read some fictionalized version of that long-ago class, but never did.

And then one winter weekend, on a little jaunt to Chicago with my husband and some friends, we stopped at Stuart Brent’s Bookstore on Michigan Avenue. Little did I know that this store was a mecca for Chicago’s literary greats. And I certainly never expected to encounter Philip Roth, but there he was sitting at a table in the rear of the stacks, autographing his most recent novel (his 20th), Operation Shylock.

“Talk to him,” said my husband. “Introduce yourself,” urged my friends. Screwing up my courage, I stepped to his table. “Mr. Roth,” I said, “you probably don’t remember, but I was in your class at Stony Brook many years ago.”

He looked up and smiled politely and, out of nervousness, I started to tell him the story of the class — the girls primping in the bathroom, the ex-Playboy bunny, the early hippies, the dreamy English major in the middle. I even told him how I had dragged my friend into Manhattan one rainy Saturday where we found his address in the phone book, walked past his building several dozen times, hoping he might come out, recognize me from class, invite me for coffee and fall in love.

He listened intently with a slightly bemused expression, then smiled and said he had had no idea any of that was going on. He told me it had been a difficult time in his life; he had been going through a bad divorce, was in a writing slump and had taken the teaching job for some needed cash. He had come to campus once a week completely oblivious to his students’ fantasies.

We both laughed, I bought a book and asked if he would autograph it. Yes, of course he would; he took the book, wrote on the title page and I thanked him. It was only after we left the bookstore that I opened the book and saw his inscription. He had written:

“To Judy, a girl out of my unlived life.”

Indeed.

— Judith (Savit) Landsman ’66


Philip Roth (1933-2018) lectured at Stony Brook University in the mid 1960’s for the Department of English. He is best known for his literary works including Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus and American Pastoral.

This story was submitted as part of “My Stony Brook Memories,” a new initiative of the Stony Brook Alumni Association to collect and share cherished memories, stories and reflections written by Stony Brook’s own alumni. Send us your news and memories here

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